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I find myself threatening my kids with unreasonable punishments. How do I stop?

Many parents turn to threats as a last resort when they don't know what else to do. ("If you don't clean up your room right now, you can forget about the circus this weekend"). But then you're boxed in. You already bought the tickets! And you probably won't stick to that irrational threat you made without thinking—so your credibility goes down a notch. Who are you really punishing?

Haven't we all made threats that we couldn't--or wouldn't want to--follow through on? This is true especially of threats made in the heat of anger. Some of them are inane, if not absurd. I remember once threatening my sons that if they didn't stop fighting I'd take away the TV for three weeks! Three weeks! What could I have been thinking? And of course I didn't stick to it: not only did it have nothing to do with their behavior, but by making such a baseless threat, they didn’t take me seriously. When we state that we're going to carry out a penalty or consequence, we’d better make sure that it's something we can--and will--follow through with.

For example, if your children are carousing and jumping around in a restaurant and you say: "Children. You have a choice. You can sit quietly in your seats and we'll stay and order our meal, or if you can't contain yourselves, we're leaving," be prepared to do just that--even if your children protest or apologize. Then the next time you make a similar threat (better referred to as a fact) they will take you seriously.

And watch out for statements like "Well, just this once" or "This is the last time" or "If you do that one more time..." Those phrases definitely lack credibility. When we say something, it's important that our children believe us and take our words seriously.

Moreover, when a parent threatens punishment ("One more sound out of you & you'll get a spanking"), he probably won’t encourage cooperation, but he may encourage his child’s defiance. These kinds of threats--"you better do what you're told or you'll be sorry"--may in fact sound like a challenge to a feisty child. Rather than acting as a deterrent to inappropriate behavior, the child may hear your statement as a dare and provoke you even more to see if you're going to make good on your threat.

Remember that an irrational threat, or one that is out of proportion to the offense, doesn't teach your child anything about the realistic consequences of her behavior. Instead of using "if," try "as soon as" or "when." These words help you to stay rational and positive, not punitive. They are also easy to follow through on. For example: "As soon as you put your toys away, then we can have a snack," or "When you've hung up your jacket, we can play a game."


More Solutions to Parents' FAQs can be found in Nancy's books and articles found below.

Antidotes to Spoiling Kids
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How to Know if your Child is Spoiled
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Find out the traits of a spoiled child and learn to show love without spoiling.

• Sibling Rivalry
Learn nine solutions for handling sibling rivalry.

Have Your Kids Take the Sibling Survey
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Positive Discipline
Positive discipline alternatives to yelling, nagging, bribing, threatening and punishing.

Avoid Spanking
Spare the rod: to spank or not to spank?


Eight Weapons in the War on Anger
Nancy offers parents & Educators effective skills to handle their anger without hurting or insulting kids.